Assessing 6 months of HE under the French
Six months of the French Presidency drew to a close at the end of December, and with it a very hectic period of meetings and conferences for ESU staff. But what was the outcome of all this frenetic activity in terms of higher education policy at the European level? Were there some real achievements, or rather a lot of talk and little action?
There are a lot of positives to be drawn from the French tenure at the top of the EU. Firstly, ESU would like to express it sincere gratitude for the substantial support received for organising the ‘Let’s Go!’ mobility campaign validation conference in Lille, which rounded off a year of high-level work on student and staff mobility across Europe. Secondly, the French Presidency has been a pioneer in opening the debates of education decision-makers to students by inviting ESU representatives to attend the informal meeting of ministers in charge of education and higher education in Bordeaux. This initiative demonstrated a spirit of openness and inclusion that was deeply appreciated.
The support received for the Lille mobility conference reflected the high priority given to mobility as an issue during the French Presidency. While we do not share one of the main conclusions of the Nancy mobility conference “Europe of Higher Education: a mobility zone to strengthen” that a key mobility obstacle is lack of motivation on the part of students, we applaud the increased investment that was made in various mobility programmes and the commitments made at the Bordeaux conference. Equally impressive was the high-level mobility target which France has set for itself of 20% mobility by 2020. This is precisely the target that ESU is campaigning for at European level through the “Let’s go!” project, and setting an example in this manner should serve to encourage other Bologna Process countries to follow suit. We were also pleased by the French Presidency’s work on lifelong learning, which included several good initiatives such as asking the European Universities Association (EUA) to draft a Lifelong Learning Charter, and calling on Member State Governments to get more involved with this area of work.
The main area of disappointment centred on quality assurance. The French Presidency involved itself in the promotion of, and issuing a call for, the design of ‘transparency tools’ which included classification and rankings, in spite of a clear message from students, teachers and higher education institutions being made against these initiatives. In asking the Commission to design a ‘world-beating ranking system’, the French Higher Education Minister, Valerie Pécresse, failed to take account of the diversity of the higher education systems across the continent and the need for an increased focus on newly set up quality assurance (QA) systems across Europe (aligned with the European Standards and Guidelines), and did not involve stakeholders in the initiative. It was, in short, a proposal that did not flow from the wishes of students, academic staff or higher education institutions and its sometimes aggressive promotion created disappointed as it did not fit with the Presidency’s otherwise inclusive and democratic approach.
Overall, we applaud the French Presidency’s focus on a set of clear priorities, and in particular, on their willingness to take issues like mobility and lifelong learning further by actively promoting them at EU level. Apart from the “transparency tools” disappointment, ESU was unpleasantly surprised that there was little attention given to promoting social dimension, despite the French having been one of the original pioneers of this critical issue at European level. We believe that another chance for a genuine fight for equal educational opportunities for all was missed. Our hope for the future is that the French Government will concretely support progress on, and continue to be a primary advocate for, what is a vital issue for all students all across Europe.